In Her Own Words: Octavia Spencer

I met Octavia Spencer while shooting Robert Zemeckis’ The Witches in London, in the spring of 2019. Still a production assistant with dreams the size of the Moon, it was an experience that sticks with and haunts you. A teachable moment, knowing that one can always be more hardworking, more dedicated, more generous and more present.\n\nSpencer admits that climbing the proverbial ladder of success doesn’t happen overnight, and learning more about all parts of the film industry is, and should be, a crucial part of the process.

Clocking in 139 film credits, she seems to never stop working as an actor, author, and producer. This year, she appeared as Madam C.J. Walker (the first female self-made millionaire) in the Netflix series Self Made, Grandma in Robert Zemeckis’ re-imagination of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and Poppy Scoville-Parnell in Nichelle Tramble Spellman’s crime series Truth Be Told. She received an Academy Award, a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) Award for playing housekeeper Minny in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi in The Help (2011) and was nominated for her performances in Hidden Figures (2016) and The Shape of Water (2017).

Our Winter 2021 Cover Feature: FRONTRUNNER spoke to Spencer on being diligent, chasing big dreams, and how having an iconic line in one film can earn you perpetually favourable results.

Photo credit: Randee St. Nicholas

Your entry into Hollywood wasn’t, shall we say, typical. You live in Los Angeles, but that’s not where you grew up. How did you first make your inroads into Hollywood?

I first gained a film community by working behind the scenes on set as a production assistant. It was there that I learned so much about the industry and acting. I urge anyone considering a career in the film industry to break the ice and work behind the scenes for some time. The information you gain is invaluable.

How did the transition from behind-the-scenes to working actor happen? Do you think you will ever return to being behind the camera?

My transition just happened organically. I auditioned for roles and ended up getting them. I still continue working behind the scenes for most of my film projects as a producer, and I imagine that one day soon, I will just produce.

Relevant to your own experience, what gives a production assistant this unique perspective?

The production assistants interact with every department on set. They are the lowest on the totem pole, but they will gain vast experience.

Octavia Spencer as “Minny Jackson”
The Help (2011)
Dir. Tate Taylor
Photo credit: Dale Robinette/DreamWorks Pictures

Trust may be the key to never fall out of love with film, but it’s also the hardest to achieve. Is this something you were conscious of when you were starting?

I am blessed to have amazing people on my team, but that also comes from being observant in my days behind the scenes in the industry. I chose people who have a great work ethic but who are also fun to be around.

My parents always said no dreams are too big to achieve. Who were the people who believed in you and what advice did they give you?

My mother was the first person to have demonstrated to me that no dreams are too big to achieve. Then came all the educators throughout my life.

With networking becoming more fluid and also instantaneous thanks to the help of digital technology, how do you view the next generation of producers and women of color in the film industry both on and off-screen?

It’s wonderful that there are more and more platforms and ways for people to disseminate their work. I think we will continue to see that they are playing field level to accommodate all voices and segments of society who are and who were marginalized. I think there has always been a market for diverse stories but there were very few diverse executives willing to actually tell those stories. Audiences have demonstrated their willingness to support those types of stories. I was fortunate enough to be involved with three films: Fruitvale Station, The Help, and Hidden Figures.

You’ve spoken openly about your dyslexia. Do you think something like this is a challenge to confront in the industry; to adapt, understand, and work out alternative ways to collaborate?

Dyslexics are very adaptable people and there are actually quite a few in creative fields. However, I am only concerned with how well an actor or crew member does his or her job. I am not at all concerned with one’s background or lifestyle. At the end of the day, I am impressed by one’s ability to complete the tasks at hand, and how well one achieves that.

I must ask: do you ever have people come up to you and reference your best line from The Help, when you say, “Eat My Shit”?

Yes! It’s really weird out of context.

Octavia Spencer as “Poppy Scoville-Parnell”
Truth Be Told (2019-)
Created by Nicole Tramble Spellman
Photo credit: Apple TV+

How would you describe your approach to cultural and social inclusivity? Do you think political agendas are inherent in storytelling or can they be bypassed?

I think you just write the story’s characters and cast the actors you love. Some people will always have the political agendas, but actors at the end of the day just want to act and play interesting characters of the story. I’m also not really interested in anyone’s political beliefs unless they are so opposite of my own ideological beliefs.

What would you do differently if you had access to the same tools when you were making your way into acting and producing?

Nothing. There is not one formula to achieve success. I worked my way through the ranks of the film industry, and now I like the end result.

There is no recipe for success and everyone’s journey is unique to them, but what would be your best advice to your young self?

My advice to anyone is to work hard, research, and train for the job or career you really want to succeed in. So, when success happens, you will truly be ready for it.

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